And more of those dirty little terms may be allowed under a new ruling by a three-judge panel of the Second U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New York. On July 13, .
But as the new crop of viewers raised in the Wild West culture of the Internet and more lax cable standards emerge, traditional the next thing you know, you've got a title of a fall CBS show that now could easily forgo tossing in all those random symbols about poop a dad says. But as the new crop of viewers raised in the Wild West cultureTV barriers could change quickly. Any person the FCC might try to protect has already had ample exposure to more than just those seven coarse terms on the Internet alone.
So what’s the point?
Few of the salacious terms on Carlin’s list still hold any shock power. While still termed “the F-bomb,” the actual word seems more like a Fourth of July sparkler than a lethal weapon. Parents may be irritated when their child lets the word fly, but their hearts no longer stop.
Public watchdog groups have attempted to stave off the coarsening of our culture, and encourage the attempts by the FCC to regulate the few remaining entities under its control.
TV stations have to adhere to FCC rules to keep their licenses and face hefty fines if they don’t watch their language. But once that genie of bad words popped out of the bottle on cable and the Internet, there was no going back.
The excrement synonym deemed verboten by Carlin and those in charge of CBS series titles has been uttered on many occasions on broadcast TV, beginning in 1999 on “Chicago Hope.” A few years later, the dying Dr. Mark Green experiences excruciating agony from his terminal brain tumor on “ER” and lets the word fly. The use of the word lent an authenticity to the stories being played out on the screen. When hit by the massive bolt of pain, it would have been disingenuous to have the good doc double over and exclaim, “Shucks!”
Of course, the use of the colloquial term for a woman or man’s body part can be successfully avoided without fear of losing realism. But utilizing language in common usage can make the difference between a viewer buying into the reality of a scripted world, or laughing off the contrivance.
When “Southland” premiered in 2009, NBC promised it would take a “raw and authentic” look at the Los Angeles Police Department. That included some gritty language and bleeping out only the most notorious fornicating term –even though a first-grader could fill in the blank.
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This fall, a new crop of shows filmed even before the court made its ruling had already sprinkled some salty language in the scripts. “Son of a bitch,” “goddamn it,” “bastard,” “bitch,” “ass” and “boobs” all invade the dialogues.
Fox series “Running Wilde,” which debuts Sept. 21, even goes for a U2 homage. In 2003, after an exuberant Bono used the copulating expression as an adjective in describing how brilliant it was to win a Golden Globe, the FCC tightened the obscenity rule to include even a single use of the word in a non-scripted moment. When Will Arnett’s character on “Wilde” gets a gander at a huge trophy for him, he blasts the F out before the beeper goes off. Perhaps this fall, he’ll get to say the entire word uncensored.
Producers can still opt to keep dirty words at bay with clever devices. Producer Shawn Ryan – known for his provocative and spicy language in FX’s “The Shield” - took on the problem of foul language on broadcast television in a clever twist.
His main character, a Chicago detective no stranger to the language of the street, tells his new partner, “I don’t appreciate profanity.” And he warns another cop tossing out a few “asses” and “screw yous” to “lose the language. There are women and children present.” That still doesn’t stop the script from describing the new police chief as a “smug bitch,” but it does cut down on the potential mass bleeping of the most frequently used street profanity.
It’s doubtful CBS will change the title of its new fall sitcom “$“#*! My Dad Says” to the more memory-friendly Twitter account title the show is based on. That’s because beyond the fear of the FCC fines lies the greater pressure from viewers and advertisers to keep prime time relatively clean. It’s the same non-FCC pressure that has worked to curtail much of basic cable, which relies on advertising dollars rather than the premium channels’ subscription-based business model.
In the season premiere of “Mad Men,” there was a pointed dig at advertisers who think that they can maintain a dated sense of modesty and still draw customers.
“Your competitors are going to kill you,” Don Draper tells the swimwear people unnerved by his slightly risqué campaign. “You can be comfortable and dead or risky and rich.”
What’s interesting is over the years, there haven’t been any recent word inventions that hold the same lingering power as those antiquated terms for body organs, sexual acts or excrement. With these words coming into everyday conversations over the years, the once startling words started to lose their pizzazz. And we seem to have lost interest in creating more incendiary expressions. With the F word one of the last remaining verboten terms for broadcast television, what will take its place?
Perhaps we’ve just all moved on from giving profane words too much power over us.
Susan C. Young is a writer in Northern California.